Kurt Kitayama breaks through in a wild finish at Bay Hill

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Kurt Kitayama let a stellar line-up of challengers get back into the tournament with a triple bogey only to beat them all with a clutch birdie and the best putt of his life from behind to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational on Sunday.

With five players leading with just three holes left, Kitayama surged ahead with a 15-foot birdie putt on the par-3 17th hole to take the lead. Then his 50-foot putt on the final hole stopped inches short of the cup.

The par putt for an even-par 72 may have been the easiest shot he had all day.

Four-birdie Rory McIlroy chipped in with four birdies in five holes around the turn, only to miss a 10-foot birdie putt on the final hole to take the lead. He had a 70 and finished one shot behind. So did Harris English, who went bogey-free over the weekend at overcast, windy Bay Hill in the 70s.

Defending champion Scotty Scheffler was just a few steps away from getting a close look at birdie and a chance to take the lead. Instead, on the 18th, his ball bounced back and he finished with a putt.

Jordan Spieth was among six players who had at least a share of the lead over the final two hours. He missed four straight putts inside 8 feet from the 14th to 17th holes — three of them for par. He took the lead with a 15-foot birdie putt and then birdied his final five holes in 3-over.

Spieth (70), Scheffler (73), Patrick Cantley (68) and Tyrell Hutton (72) finished two shots back.

Everyone had a chance, mostly thanks to one swing. Kitayama had a two-shot lead when he made a wild hook out of bounds on the ninth hole, resulting in a triple bogey.

These are the players who kept beating China — John Rahm by one shot in Mexico, Xander Schaufele by one shot at the Scottish Open, McIlroy by one shot at the CJ Cup in South Carolina last year.

This time, the 30-year-old Californian, who has struggled around the world to earn his PGA Tour card, had the final say.

Kitayama finished 9th at 279 under and earned $3.6 million.

“He went south on 9,” Kitayama said. “Suddenly I’m not driving anymore. I just fought back, and I’m proud of myself for that.”

McIlroy tried to make a bold play on the par-3 14th, not knowing he was correct in the combination, the start of a bogey-bogey stretch that sent him back. He made the best approach ever on the 18th, right over the flag by 10 feet. The shot stayed right all the way.

The finish was such pure theater that five players were tied for the lead going into the final round and all had a chance to win.

“I certainly felt it on the golf course, so I’m sure it was really good to watch,” McIlroy said. “It’s tough because the leads were changing hands with guys who were making bogeys, not birdies. So not sure how people find this entertainment value.

“But it was a great back nine. It was great to participate,” he said. “I’m really happy for Kurt. He’s been playing well for a while now and I’m glad to see him get his first win.”

Of the top seven players, all have won majors or played in the Ryder Cup. The exception is Kitayama, who has groomed himself for a similar moment with plenty of close calls against players with polished pedigrees.

Kitayama, who played at UNLV, didn’t have much success on the Korn Ferry Tour and plied his trade overseas on the Asian Tour and European Tour, with stops along the way on the Sunshine Tour in South Africa and the Japanese Golf Tour.

Now he’s No. 19 in the world, sporting a red cardigan for beating Arnie and a big feather in his cap for the players he’s had to beat.

He made it difficult for himself on the 18th, pulling his tee shot into the tight rough. His only thought was “just get it on the green, just give yourself a chance.”

That’s all he needs, and he finally has a PGA Tour title to show for it.

Meanwhile, Rahm finished in the same spot at 39th, his first time outside the top 10 since the Tour Championship last August. He still managed to stay on the first place in the world.


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